ERODING CIVIL RIGHTS! Is India’s Democracy in Danger?

    Our country is facing the destruction of the very idea of India as a great, multi-religious, multi-cultural civilization. We are facing the gravest danger we have faced since independence. Our freedom is not merely under threat, it is being ‘openly attacked’, says Nayantara Sahgal, niece of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whose latest work, “Nehru’s India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation”, has just been released.

    What is happening to the body politic of India in the short time since Shri Narendra Modi assumed power?  Are the institutions of democratic strength and stability for six decades, which were built under the stewardship of eminent statesmen like Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar proving to be weak and vulnerable?

    If we listen to various pundits, there is a serious cause for concern to India’s vast democracy. Although the BJP government has come to power with only 31 per cent of the vote share, the Sangh Parivar with its misguided agenda and regressive policies has determined to transform India into its own liking. With civil society under threats and intimidation, the media’s eagerness to establish approval, and the survival mode of the opposition parties, the saffron brigade is not wasting any time.

    On the eve of Shri Modi’s second visit to the United States, there is certainly a shift in the mood within the Diaspora as regards the intent and purposes of the BJP government. A letter signed by 124 members of faculty  from leading Universities in USA questions the Prime Minister on well-publicized episodes of censorship and harassment in his critical policies; bans and restrictions on NGOs; ongoing violations of religious freedom; and a steady impingement on the independence of the judiciary.

    The letter also talked about foreign scholars who have been denied entry in to India to attend International conferences, and the ongoing interference with the governance of top Indian Universities and academic institutions. It mentioned under-qualified or incompetent key appointments made to Indian Council of Historical research, the Film and Television Institute of India and the National Book Trust. In conclusion, the statement expressed serious concern for the political future of the country if these trends are allowed to continue.

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    In an interview with Times of India, Nobel Laureate  Amartya Sen said, ” Government must understand that winning a Lok Sabha election does not give you permission to undermine the autonomy of academic institutions, or for that matter, the courts or the upper house of Parliament. Academic freedom is based on the government understanding the limits of its formal power as opposed to its actual power and what they are expected to do: they are expected to listen to the voice of the professoriate and the voice of the people in the University”.

    Whether it is banning the documentary ‘India’s Daughter”; offloading Ms. Priya Pillai, a Green Peace activist from her flight to London, while she was on her way to address British Parliamentarians; banning the processing, selling or eating of the red meat in Maharashtra and in 4 other BJP-ruled states; the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is stamping history with their regressive policies and divisive agenda.

    The BJP Government so far has banned 69 Non-Governmental Organizations from receiving foreign funding, branding them as anti-national and accusing them of working at the behest of foreign governments. It includes organizations like Ford Foundation and Caritas International that provided much-needed help to communities in rural India in an effort to end poverty promote justice and restore dignity to a neglected segment of the population.

    Ms. Teesta Setavald, a long-time critic of Mr. Modi on his handling of the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed more than 1000 people in Gujarat is currently being investigated by CBI. According to a New York Times report, the prosecutor branded her ‘a threat to India’s national security, so dangerous that she should be locked up while Modi’s Government investigates whether it was legal for her to accept funding from Ford Foundation’.

    For the first time since it took charge, the NDA government has issued show-cause notices to ABP news, NDTV and Aaj Talk alleging that these three private channels showed disrespect to the judiciary in their coverage of the hanging of Mumbai blast convict Yakub Memon, asking them to explain within 15 days why action should not be taken against them for broadcasting such content.

    These should not be regarded as isolated incidents but rather as a  part of a grand strategy to intimidate civil society, and silence the media in order to advance the saffron agenda. All these incidents point to a growing intolerance to dissent, and the very concept of freedom that may ultimately prove fatal to the democratic and pluralistic framework that was created out of the visionary leadership of the founding fathers of modern India.

    Asked to explain what prompted him to be a signatory on the faculty statement against Narendra Modi’s “Digital India Campaign”, Richard A. Falk, Professor Emeritus of Law at Princeton University said the following: “I and others on the list have questions about Narendra Modi’s record on religious tolerance, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. Some of those who signed the letter have also been subject to a campaign of harassment from Hindu nationalist followers, which raises particular worries about academic freedom. “Digital India” as an initiative has enormous potential to affect positive social change, but it simultaneously poses dangers for abuse under the Modi administration that can make use of digitization to target members of minority communities or those who are critical of its policies. It is my impression that the Modi government has been particularly sensitive to criticism and unfriendly to critics, making our concern more credible”.

    Mr. Falk’s statement sounds prophetic, as at the time of writing this article Mr. John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council and Secretary General of All India Catholic Union and a foremost Human Rights defender was being hounded with abusive and threatening tweets along with his personal details. The abuses are also directed at the Catholic-Christian minority and are aimed at disturbing communal harmony. The country has just witnessed the murders of three well-known rationalists -Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi allegedly by religious extremists. These elements appear to be serious in their nefarious undertaking.

    As the Indian entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley are gearing up to give a grand reception to the Prime Minister, I hope they would also be cognizant of the fact that the freedom they enjoy here in the United States should empower them to enhance freedom elsewhere. As Mahatma Gandhi once said “Commerce (Business) without morality (ethics) and science without humanity could prove to be detrimental to everyone’s long term interests!”

    (The author is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations)

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